Obama campaign holds ground-game advantage as early voting begins

Mitt Romney’s campaign is hoping it can match the unparalleled success of President Obama’s ground-game operation as early voting begins in a number of key states. 

But in some places it is still playing catch-up to the Obama juggernaut.

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Election Day is just six weeks away, and a number of states, including North Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin, have already begun mail-in absentee voting. Iowa will open up in-person early voting on Thursday, while Ohio will do so the following Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Romney and the Republican National Committee have focused on improving on the ground game Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ran in 2008. On Monday, the RNC touted a state-by-state breakdown of voter contacts that far surpassed McCain’s from four years ago.

But Obama’s campaign never closed the doors on some swing-state campaign offices after his 2008 victory. Strategists on both sides of the aisle acknowledge he will likely have the edge in get-out-the-vote efforts.

Among Democrats, the sense of confidence is palpable:

Iowa Democratic strategist Greg Hauenstein argued the Obama campaign was “just blowing the Romney campaign out of the water” in terms of its presence in the state.

“Between the 2008 and 2012 elections, Organizing for America had an office open constantly here in Des Moines,” he added. “Soon after the campaign started, they were in Iowa City, Cedar Falls, and then just spreading out from there.”

But Republicans insist they have put in place the infrastructure they need to stay competitive across the battleground states.

“It’s all about execution right now,” RNC political director Rick Wiley told The Hill. “I think we can go toe to toe with the Obama campaign in any state … You look at where we are as opposed to 2008 and this campaign will mark the gold standard of any ground game Republicans have ever put on the field in a presidential race.”

Wiley said in a Monday memo that Republicans have already knocked on 2 million more doors and made six times as many phone calls as they did by Election Day in 2008.

Obama’s campaign has spent heavily on field staff and has made the calculated bet that being able to reach out to more voters directly will be worth more than additional advertising down the stretch. 

While campaign staffers closely guard most details of how many people they have reached out to, they were happy to point out that they have nearly double the number of field staff as Romney and the RNC, and in a number of key swing states have twice the number of field offices.

As of early September the Obama campaign had already made 43 million calls and registered more than 1 million voters, more than they had done at the comparable point during their vaunted 2008 field operation, regarded by many as possibly the most robust in history.

“As we continue to bring the clear choice of this election into focus for the American people over the final weeks, our supporters and volunteers across the country are responding with action in their neighborhoods to make sure the president has four more years to keep moving America forward,” said Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher. “In an election where every vote counts, our massive grassroots organization will make the difference on Nov. 6.”

Dick Morris countered that, while the remnants of the Obama 2008 machine would have an influence in some states, “I don’t think it will be near that [2008] level of effectiveness.” He added that, whereas there was legitimate enthusiasm for Obama four years ago, “now, it’s kind of forced.”

Wiley said the RNC had almost 75,000 volunteers helping it out and had made 26 million voter contacts between phone calls and door knocks at this point. He downplayed the importance of the number of staffers and offices.

“I think we’re equal or above them. I don’t care how many offices they have,” he said. “That seems to be the only metric they’re willing to talk about. We’re maximizing resources. They can put 500 offices in North Carolina; they’re not going to win the state.”

Outside experts noted that the GOP has an in-built advantage, of a kind. Broadly speaking, the demographic groups that lean Republican turn up more reliably on Election Day.

“The Obama campaign needs to have those offices because their supporters are the type of people who are lower-propensity voters,” said Dr. Michael McDonald, an early-voting and turnout expert at George Mason University. “The Romney campaign does not need as much of an organization as the Democrats do, because a lot of their voters are going to take care of themselves.”

While Romney’s campaign and the RNC have vastly improved their ground game overall, some states are far ahead of others. In Wisconsin and North Carolina, Republicans say they have caught and perhaps surpassed Democratic ground-game operations, pointing to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) successful recall election win as evidence.

In other states, such as Ohio and Virginia, local GOP strategists and observers feel they’ve made strides but still trail Obama. In the Mountain West, especially in Nevada but also in Colorado, they badly lag their Democratic counterparts.

“Romney is in a much better position than McCain, but overall I think the GOP is still trailing the Democrats in the ground-game battle,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on McCain’s field operation in 2008, told The Hill. 

“Democrats will have an advantage on the ground. We’re closing the gap, but it’s not yet where it needs to be, and the Obama guys have the edge, particularly in the Southwest but also in Virginia and Ohio.”

BATTLEGROUND STATES AND EARLY VOTING

Dates when states will mail absentee ballots to voters, and when early in-person voting will become available.

COLORADO
Absentee ballots mailed: Oct. 15
Early in-person voting: Oct. 22-Nov. 2

FLORIDA
Absentee: Oct. 2
Early in-person Oct. 27-Nov. 3

IOWA
Absentee: Sept. 27
Early in-person: Sept 27.-Nov. 5

MICHIGAN
Absentee: Sept. 22
No early in-person voting

NEVADA
Absentee: Oct. 17
Early in-person: Oct. 20-Nov. 2

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Absentee: Sept. 22
No early in-person voting

NORTH CAROLINA
Absentee: Sept. 6
Early in-person: Oct. 18-Nov. 3

OHIO
Absentee: Oct. 2
Early in-person: Oct. 2-Nov. 2

VIRGINIA
Absentee: Sept. 21
In-person: Sep 21.-Nov. 3

WISCONSIN
Absentee: Sept. 20
Early in-person: Oct. 22-Nov. 2

Source: Early Voting Information Center, Reed College